Pope John Paul II and Communism

By Arthur R. Policarpio
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman dressed in the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain, looking to her time of delivery. Then another sign appeared: a huge, red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and wearing seven crowns on its heads. It had just swept along a third of the stars of heaven with its tail, throwing them down to the earth.
(St. John’s Book of Revelation, Chapter 12, Verses 1-4)

Thus, in powerful symbolic imagery, the last book of the Holy Bible describes a cataclysmic battle between the Woman Clothed in the Sun, interpreted by many as the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Red Dragon, interpreted as Satan or the forces of evil.

But in the book, “To the Priests, Our Lady’s Beloved Sons,” which consists of messages from Our Lady to Fr. Stefano Gobbi, founder of the Marian Movement of Priests, the Blessed Mother is very specific and talks of the instruments the devil uses. She says:

The huge Red Dragon is atheistic communism which has spread everywhere the error of the denial and the obstinate rejection God... The hugeness of the Dragon clearly manifests the vastness of the territory occupied by the uncontested reign of atheistic communism. Its color is red because it uses wars and blood as instruments of its numerous conquests... The Lord has re-clothed me with His light and the Holy Spirit with His divine power, and thus I appear as a great sign in heaven, a Woman clothed in the sun, because I have the task of taking humanity away from the dominion of the huge Red Dragon... (May 14, 1989)

Much of the world during the second half of the twentieth century believed it impossible for the Communist Empire to disintegrate and collapse. The Soviet Union dominated Eastern and Central Europe, forcing its atheistic ideals on the people through the power of its sheer military strength. People under Communist rule were brutally forbidden and suppressed to publicly profess their faith to any religion. Marx, founder of Communism, believed that religion was an “opium for the people” and that God did not exist. Indeed, how truly terrifying for this atheistic outlook to find an “enforcer” in the brutal superpower that was the Soviet Union. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that at least half of the world was literally held in the palm of Satan’s hands in the second half of the twentieth century.

Poland at that time was under Communist rule. It was a time of great suffering for the Polish people: the economy was devastated and the national morale was at rock bottom. For years, Karol Wojtyla, Archbishop of Krakow, had been waging a silent struggle against Communist rule in Poland, together with Primate Cardinal Wyszynski, Archbishop of Warsaw.

And then, on October 1978, for the first time in 450 years, a non-Italian cardinal was elected to the Papal Throne. “Holy Mother of God!” was the reaction of Soviet First Secretary Edward Gierek, which pretty much summed up the Communists’ sentiments towards Karol Wojtyla’s unexpected ascension to the Papacy. The truly unthinkable had happened: a cardinal from a country under Communist rule was elected to the Papacy.

The Polish Pope

Pope John Paul II, consummate actor that he was during his younger years, was a believer in the power of symbols in communications. Form the first moments of his papacy, through various symbolic gestures, he made known to the world in veiled “acted” language that he was, above all, a Pole who deeply cared about his homeland. During the 22 October 1978 inaugural mass of his pontificate, breaking protocol in the presence of hundreds of leaders from around the world and thousands of journalists and TV networks, John Paul II rose from his papal throne to embrace Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, symbolic head of the Polish people’s struggle against Communism. The image of the pope passionately hugging the primate cardinal of Poland was captured on television, a striking contrast to the more subdued kissing of the papal ring by the 116 other cardinals who had lined up to pay the pope homage.

On November 4, in the presence of a delegation from the Catholic University of Lublin, the pope declared that his election was a gift from the Lord to Poland. Poland... Poland... Poland... was a constant drumbeat in the early years of the pope’s papacy. It became evidently clear that, in emphasizing the “Polishness” of his papacy, Karol Wojtyla was not merely obsessed with a sentimental attachment to his homeland: he was drawing the battle lines against Communism, and Poland would be at the heart of the struggle.

Attacking the Belly of the Beast

The communist collapse, John Paul II knew, would start in Poland. Situated right at the center of Communism’s European bastion, Poland was strategically important for the regime. The destabilization of Poland would set about chain reactions in the various satellite communist states, held tenuously by the Soviets primarily through the threat of military intervention.

A year after his election to the papacy, John Paul II undertook his first homecoming to Poland. The journey home was not only a spiritual campaign designed to lift up the spirits and morale of the Polish people; it was also suspected by many as a political maneuver designed to plant seeds of unrest and set in motion forces already in place that had the potential to destabilize the communist regime. Global leader and master diplomat that he was, it can only be assumed that the Holy Father knew the potentially damaging affects his victorious homecoming to Poland would cause the Communist empire.

The pope’s homecoming was truly triumphant, an awesome show of force by the Church that left the Communist regime in Poland and in the Kremlin shaking and fearful. On the first day of the pope’s return on 2 June 1979, more than a million Poles converged on the airport road on the first hour of his visit. The next day, Pentecost, huge throngs greeted him in the city of Gniezcno, chanting, “We want God!” In Poland, the forces of good and evil would be locked in fierce combat: an atheistic regime versus a people fighting for their belief in God.

Highlight of the trip was the pope’s triumphant homecoming to Jasna Gora, the sanctuary-fortress of Czestochowa where the Black Madonna is venerated, the very heart of the Catholic Polish nation and the symbols of its resistance to foreign invaders. Hundreds of thousands joined the solemn celebration of the Eucharist.

The pope’s trip weakened the Communists’ grip on the people, who for years had been held under check through fear and brutal repression. Fear slowly gave way to expectant hope, as well as defiance and an overpowering desire for freedom. The Communists were shocked by the crowd’s behaviour which for them was “beyond normal,” almost cult-like. Every gesture, every symbolic action, every word of the pope was immediately re-broadcast throughout the world by an army of more than a thousand journalists who had come to Poland to follow the story. General Jaruzelski, future leader of the Communist party in Poland, said “The stronger the Church was, the more the members of the Politburo feared that this would undermine the stability of the ruling circles.”

Lech Walesa and the Solidarity Movement

Pope John Paul II’s momentous homecoming spurred the birth of the Solidarity Movement in Poland, led by an unemployed electrician named Lech Walesa. Solidarity was an independent labor union founded by Walesa, representing the millions of working class Poles. Hundreds of strikes shook Poland in the summer of 1980, in violent protest of rising costs of living, low wages, and inhuman working conditions. At one point, Poland was at a standstill as millions of workers refused to work in violent protest against the regime.

Walesa’s dramatic actions were broadcast throughout the world. On his lapel, Walesa wore a pin with a picture of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. Photos of Pope John Paul II and large pictures of the Black Madonna were posted on the gates of the shipyard. Throngs of strikers flocked on bended knee around improvised outdoor confessionals.

The pope publicly supported Walesa’s cause. Walesa, on the other hand, admitted in an interview that “without the Church, nothing could happen.” The government had little choice but to give in. On 31 August 1980, the historic Gdansk accords were signed, ratifying the establishment of the first independent union, Solidarity, in Communist territory.

On January 22, comrade Mikhail Zimianian returned to Moscow from a fact-finding mission to Poland. His conclusion shocked the Communists: Solidarity, now with ten million members, had become the dominant power in Poland. A “cancer” had grown right at the heart of the Communist world, “a great force... represented by Walesa’s group and backed by the episcopate.”

The Vatican-US Alliance

As the Solidarity movement gained ground, an unlikely alliance was formed between two great superpowers: the Vatican, represented by Pope John Paul II, and the United States, represented by President Ronald Reagan. Richard Allen, a Catholic who was Reagan’s National Security Adviser at the time, characterized the relation as “one of the greatest secret alliances of all time”. On 7 June 1982, Reagan arrived in the Vatican for a historic, 50-minute one-on-one meeting with John Paul II, forging their alliance.

Poland became the central focus of the two superpowers’ common mission to bring down Communism. Solidarity had become an irritating “infection” at the heart of Communist Europe, and Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan were determined to spread that infection into a full-fledged cancer throughout the rest of the Communist world.

For years, Reagan and Pope John Paul II would keep the flame of Solidarity burning. Reagan made it a point to ask the opinion of the pope. The pope led the battle in the ideology and “propaganda” front, while the United States supported in terms of underground intelligence, logistics and financial support. From the 1982 visit of Ronald Reagan to the Holy Father, to the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall, the United States spent more than $50 million to keep Solidarity alive.

Reagan, together with his “Catholic team” composed of CIA Director William Casey and National Security Adviser Richard Allen, believed that Communism was spiritually, fundamentally evil. Both the Holy Father and Reagan, victims of assassination attempts only six weeks apart, believed that they had been saved by Divine Providence to fulfill a mission – that of bringing down what Reagan regarded as the “evil empire”.

The Liberation of Poland

Through the years, with support from the Vatican and the United States, the Solidarity movement gained strength, winning one political concession after the other. Finally, after much prodding from the Kremlin, the Polish Communist regime led by General Jaruzelski sought to definitively end the Solidarity uprising by declaring martial law. Solidarity leaders were arrested and jailed, including Walesa.

The United States responded to the declaration of martial law with crippling economic sanctions. The Polish authorities, feeling the economic crunch, turned to John Paul II to negotiate with the United States for the lifting of sanctions. The pope, in a one-on-one meeting with Jaruzelski during his second visit, made it clear that resumption of a “state of normalcy” (lifting of martial law) was essential for lifting of the sanctions. It is significant that, soon after the pope’s visit in 1983, martial law was lifted.

At the Holy Father’s prodding, the United States lifted economic sanctions, under assurances that Polish authorities would resume negotiations with Solidarity and recognize it as a legal entity. Jaruzelski admitted to the pope in their one-on-one meeting, “We are already defeated. There is no future for the party or the Communist system in Poland.”

Combined with punishing strikes led by Solidarity, Jaruzelski caved in and on 18 January 1989, announced that Solidarity would once again be legally recognized as a trade union. Landmark elections were held on 4 June 1989, with Solidarity winning all but one of the 262 seats in parliaments. Lech Walesa was eventually declared President of Poland.

Fall of the Dragon

The fall of Poland triggered a domino effect on the rest on the Communist world. In October 1989, amid huge protests from thousands of East Germans, Erich Honecker, East German Communist leader, resigned. On November 10, the Berlin Wall was torn down.

One by one, the Communist countries collapsed. Bulgarian Communist President Todor Zhivkov’s 36-year reign ended with a party uprising. In Czechoslovakia, amid massive protests, President Husak resigned, and dissident playright Vaclav Havel was elected President. In Rumania, despised dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were executed by firing squad.

Across Eastern Europe, the Communist empire was in various stages of collapse. In August 1991, the Communist regime in Russia went into its death throes – the Red Dragon was dealt a fatal blow. Today, while a few countries (like China) remain Communist, the expansionist threat posed by the Soviet Union has been decisively stopped.

On 31 December 1991, the Red Square in Moscow was packed with a jubilant throng celebrating the end of the Hammer-and-Sickle. Amidst the noise, there was one moment loaded with meaning. As honor guards came marching to change guard in Lenin’s monument, a man rushed forward holding in his arms a statue of Our Lady of Fatima. For more than 30 minutes, he held the statue in front of Lenin, founder of Communism in Russia: a fitting symbolism of the triumph of the Woman Clothed with the Sun over the Red Dragon.

A Great Leader

While much of the world proclaims Pope John Paul II as the true conqueror of Communism, he himself took a more humble view: “I didn’t cause this to happen. The tree was already rotten. I just gave it a good shake and the rotten apples fell.”

And yet, in the final analysis, it is clear that Pope John Paul II was singled out by the Woman Clothed with the Sun as her instrument in slaying the Red Dragon. Looking back we can only marvel at the genius of Divine Providence: how God “maneuvered” a Polish cardinal to be elected to the papacy, and how this pope provided the Solidarity movement in Poland with much-needed inspiration that eventually led to the collapse of the Communist empire. Indeed, it was Pope John Paul II, Poland’s beloved son, who was instrumental in the slaying of the Red Dragon. He goes down in history not only as a holy man but also as one of the greatest leaders of our time.

(References: “His Holiness” by Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi and “The Holy Alliance,” Time Magazine, 24 February 1992)

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